12.18.2008

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Disturbing Recurring Theme:
Spiritual Icons Containing Violent References

Lately my interests seem drawn to extraordinarily beautiful, meaningful spiritual icons which have somehow become entangled and poisoned by the politics of violence and war। Perhaps it is something in the air; the season of the holidays coupled with the fact that the global economies are simultaneously crumbling. Perhaps this, in combination with the shift in power from a leadership comprised of war mongers, liars and thieves to one which is hopefully commanded by hope, ethics and the spirit of working together versus divisionary thinking and gestures has prompted such a curiosity in me.

My previous post discussed the beautiful, carefully assembled, artfully designed work of Al Farrow.

Just now my attention has been directed toward another mysterious phenomenon, in remote Southeast Asia, which has a mesmerizing sacred and remarkable historic essence and yet is tainted by the blight of contemporary hostilities. I am speaking about the Plain of Jars in Laos.
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The Plain of Jars is a large group of historic cultural sites in Laos containing thousands of stone jars, which lie scattered throughout the Xieng Khouang plain in the Lao Highlands at the northern end of the Annamese Cordillera, the principal mountain range of Indochina. In the context of the Vietnam War and the Secret War, the Plain of Jars typically refers to the entire Xieng Khouang plain rather than the cultural sites themselves.
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Huge, mysterious stone jars are scattered in several groups on the high plains surrounding Phonsavan in northern Laos. The jars are enormous, up to nine feet tall, the largest weighing 14 tons. Most are carved of sandstone, others of granite, conglomerate, or calcified coral. Some are round, others angular, and a few have disks that appear to be lids. Tools and human remains found inside and around the jars suggest their use and manufacture spanned centuries. The bulk of material dates from 500 B.C. to A.D. 800, and additional carbon dates are expected this summer.
Both the origin and purpose of these strange artifacts remain unknown। Their age is commonly estimated at 2000 years but erosion of the stone suggests they may be much more ancient; it has not yet been possible to date them accurately. Most of the remaining jars weigh between 1/2 and 1 ton; the largest is estimated to weigh six tons.
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Archaeologists believe that the jars were used 1,500–2,000 years ago, by an ancient Mon-Khmer race whose culture is now totally unknown. Most of the excavated material has been dated to around 500 BC–800 AD. Anthropologists and archeologists have theorized that the jars may have been used as funeral urns or perhaps storage for food.

Lao stories and legends claim that there was a race of giants who once inhabited the area. Local legend tells of an ancient king called
Khun Cheung, who fought a long, victorious battle against his enemy. He supposedly created the jars to brew and store huge amounts of lao lao rice wine to celebrate his victory.
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The first Westerner to survey, study and catalogue the Plain of Jars was a French archaeologist, Madeleine Colani of the École française d'Extrême Orient in the 1930s. She excavated the area of jars with her team and found a nearby cave with human remains, including burned bones and ash. Her work is still the most comprehensive although there have been other excavations.
During the Vietnamese civil war this part of Laos was heavily damaged by both the North Vietnamese Army (who claimed they weren't there) and the U.S. Air Force (who claimed they weren't bombing them). During the heavy bombardment of the late 1960's the local population was reduced to living in caves; the Plain of Jars is still pockmarked with huge bomb craters. The entire region is still unsafe due to massive quantities of unexploded ordinance which still litters the province.

An American bomb damaged the cave during the
Vietnam War, when the Pathet Lao used it as a stronghold — the surrounding area still has trench systems and bomb craters. The land is littered with metal shrapnel. The town of Xieng Khouang was utterly destroyed during the fighting between the Pathet Lao and American backed anti-communist troops. A new town was built in the mid 1970s, known to foreigners as Phonsavan.

Xieng Khouang Province is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dumped four billion pounds of bombs on the country in a "secret war" against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists. Up to a third of them never exploded, and they litter the land today. While generally safe to tread upon, buried UXO (unexploded ordnance) can detonate when an erratic fuse is inadvertently triggered.
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Archaeologists are certain the Plain of Jars is one of Southeast Asia's most important archaeological sites; it is one with more questions than answers। The images are haunting on so many levels. There is a religious, if inexplicable, significance as well as a disturbing presence of refuse and vandalism left behind by the ravages of the Vietnam war.
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2 comments:

Cynthia Wunsch said...

Beautiful and so mysterious. I had no idea. Thank you so much for sharing!

Murfomurf said...

Wow- what an interesting and speculative article on the Plains of Jars. I knew about them, but had no idea how extensive, nor how large the jars are. You have awakened my curiosity about yet another topic! (Ratbag!!)